KEEPING IT REAL
YOU South Africa|20 May 2021
He’s able to take complicated science and simplify it into nuggets of wisdom which is why his books, The Tipping Point and Outliers, have dominated the bestseller lists. In this fun interview, Malcolm Gladwell reflects on his extraordinary career and explains why he keeps a poster of a murderous dictator on his office wall
JOSH GLANCY

THERE aren’t many things likely to distract you during a conversation w ith Malcolm Gladwell: the author is a veritable blizzard of curious facts, surprising anecdotes and flailing arms. But I find myself distracted nonetheless, because on the wall of his office in Hudson, New York, is a giant picture of Chairman Mao.

Dressed in his signature grey suit and gently smirking, the murderous Chinese dictator hovers menacingly over the 57-year-old’s right shoulder.

Malcolm finds the poster hilarious, explaining that he bought it at a garage sale 15 years ago and rediscovered it in a cupboard recently.

“I thought how fun it would be, while transacting business at my desk, to have Mao visible over my shoulder,” he explains. “The idea of having this truly despicable tyrant reminding me of the importance of being human while I work – I thought that was good.”

That’s Malcolm for you: quirky, off-beat and a master of surprise.

We meet via Zoom, me in a gloomy Manhattan hotel room, him in his sunlit office. Terrifyingly skinny in his runner’s hoodie, with his trademark curly mop trimmed down, Malcolm’s face looms alarmingly close to the screen each time he’s feeling emphatic.

He has the air of an overzealous children’s party entertainer but it’s all strangely infectious. Even if you don’t love his “smart thinking” schtick, which has spawned an entire industry of offshoots and imitators, it’s impossible to be bored in this man’s company.

These are the qualities that have powered his extraordinary career, spanning 25 years at The New Yorker, six bestselling books and now a burgeoning podcast empire anchored by his show, Revisionist History, which takes alternative glimpses at all manner of issues such as why golf courses are such a scam and the difference between Israeli and American chutzpah. Revisionist History is about to begin its sixth season and is a regular chart-topper.

It’s no exaggeration to call Malcolm the most famous intellectual in America and perhaps the world: that rarest of eggheads who is able penetrate the Christmas stocking market.

Many prominent wonks, from John Gray to Daniel Kahneman, have criticised him for his tendency to simplify science into airport wisdom, but there’s no denying he’s a riveting storyteller. The books that made him famous – The Tipping Point, Outliers and Blink – thrive not because of their stunning originality, but because he takes dry academic research and weaves it into compelling narratives.

MALCOLM defies easy categorisation. His Jamaican mother, Joyce, met his English father, Graham, at University College London in the 1950s. When he was six, they moved from Southampton to Ontario, Canada, where his father took up a role as a maths professor at the University of Waterloo.

So is he British, Canadian, Jamaican or American? “Whatever works is my perspective,” he says. “I have so many competing identities, I pick the one that is most convenient in the moment. In Canada it’s nice to remind people you’re English; in America it’s nice to remind people you’re Canadian; in England it’s nice to remind people you’re Jamaican.”

Malcolm went to the University of Toronto but his marks weren’t good enough for graduate school, so he gravitated towards journalism, first at The Washington Post and then at The New Yorker, which is where he started on the pop science beat, publishing The Tipping Point in 2000 and dominating his field ever since.

Not everyone appreciates his simplifications, though, or his success. His most famous theory, the “10 000 hours rule”, which argued that it takes roughly 10 000 hours to master a given field, has been regularly debunked.

“Malcolm Gladwell is America’s best-paid fairytale writer” was how The New Republic headlined a review – by Professor John Gray – of David and Goliath, his 2013 book about how underdogs triumph against the odds. One reviewer in Esquire even invented a name for Malcolm’s technique: the “Gladwell feint”, which is when an author questions an obvious assumption about the world, tells the reader they have it all wrong and then flatters their vanity by suggesting they subconsciously knew the real answer all along.

“It doesn’t really bother me,” Malcolm says of the criticism.

“It’s all about your goal. If you’re a professor of English literature at Oxford, writing an academic book that culminates a lifetime of research, you had better not cherry-pick and simplify. If your audience are people as smart and learned as you, and you wrote something that didn’t measure up to that level, you would be considered a failure and a fraud.”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM YOU SOUTH AFRICAView All

Kim feels like a ‘failure' over Kanye divorce

KIM KARDASHIAN WEST struggled to hold back the tears as she broke down while talking about her marriage problems with her estranged husband KANYE WEST during a recent episode of reality TV show Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

1 min read
YOU South Africa
17 June 2021

MATTHEW'S BACK ON THE MARKET AGAIN

FANS hoped he’d finally found the love of his life when he became engaged to MOLLY HURWITZ – but alas, MATTHEW PERRY is flying solo once more.

1 min read
YOU South Africa
17 June 2021

5 MINUTES WITH MARC LOTTERING

Cape Town comedian MARC LOTTERING is back with a new show that’s bound to have audiences in stitches.

1 min read
YOU South Africa
17 June 2021

Aisia Casanova sings about love

The Angolan-based, Mexican-American singer-songwriter talks about her debut EP, a fusion of pop, jazz and electronic music

2 mins read
YOU South Africa
17 June 2021

NAOMI TAKES A STAND

The world No 2’s refusal to attend media conferences because of her mental health has divided the tennis world

5 mins read
YOU South Africa
17 June 2021

MY R75000 PROPOSAL

Nadine’s Alice in Wonderland-themed day was a super-sized surprise – and the bride-to-be said yes!

3 mins read
YOU South Africa
17 June 2021

NOW I CAN GRIEVE

Bernadette is hugely relieved to have been cleared of running over her son on the family farm

5 mins read
YOU South Africa
17 July 2021

SO LONG, SHALEEN

The beloved Egoli star had been through hard times, but things were starting to come right – until her tragic end in a guesthouse

5 mins read
YOU South Africa
17 July 2021

SURVIVING LOCKDOWN

Christi and Nico Panagio talk about family life and the challenges of the pandemic and give us a glimpse behind the scenes of the new season of Survivor SA

5 mins read
YOU South Africa
17 June 2021

TO THE WIFE OF MY LOVER

For two years Ingrid had an affair with a married man. This is her open letter to Estelle, his spouse of two decades

5 mins read
YOU South Africa
17 June 2021
RELATED STORIES

WHAT'S NEW

SUPERYACHT DESIGN IS AS BOLDLY IMAGINATIVE AS EVER, REPORTS SAM FORTESCUE

10 mins read
Yachting World
April 2021

Relentless Reckless Forever

GW PAYS TRIBUTE TO ALEXI LAIHO, THE LONG-TIME CHILDREN OF BODOM GUITARIST WHO REVOLUTIONIZED DEMONIC SHRED IN THE NINETIES AND 2000S AND EMBRACED A HARD-PARTYING LIFESTYLE WORTHY OF HIS “WILDCHILD” NICKNAME

9 mins read
Guitar World
April 2021

SIXTY years on ... its creation

The E-Type was the creation of one person - aerodynamacist Malcolm Sayer. He was immensley private and secretive with his work, and was also a multi-talented artist and musician.

10+ mins read
Jaguar Magazine
Issue 206

AC/DC: Powering Up!

AC/DC’s vitality is off the charts when it comes to a band approaching their sixth decade. Power Up, AC/DC’s 17th studio album, is proof of that vitality. Front-and-center lead guitarist Angus Young fortifies the group though his undeniable spark and iconic stage image. He admits, however, that it was his brother Malcolm who had led AC/DC throughout the decades with a strong determination as well as solid guitar rhythm.

10+ mins read
GOLDMINE
March 2021

RAW POWER

There is no band like AC/DC. There is also no bassist like Cliff Williams. “Jazz makes me feel kinda twitchy,” he confesses to Joel McIver

10+ mins read
Bass Player
Holiday 2020

POWER PLAY

Regardless of what fate throws at ’em, you just can’t keep a great band down. In this worldwide exclusive interview, intrepid AC/DC icon Angus Young discusses life after Malcolm and the band’s positively charged new album, POWER UP

10+ mins read
Guitar World
Holiday 2020

MALCOLM JENKINS STARTS VENTURE CAPITAL FUND WITH NFL PLAYERS

Malcolm Jenkins has teamed with fellow NFL players to launch a venture capital fund.

2 mins read
AppleMagazine
October 16, 2020

MALCOLM JENKINS STARTS VENTURE CAPITAL FUND WITH NFL PLAYERS

Malcolm Jenkins has teamed with fellow NFL players to launch a venture capital fund.

2 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #467

Method Man

The legendary rapper, currently starring in the Starz series Power Book II: Ghost, on aging with grace, life among the Wu-Tang, and a sure-fire cure for heartache.

3 mins read
Men's Journal
September - October 2020

What Is MasterClass Actually Selling?

The Ads are everywhere: You can learn to serve like Serena Williams, write like Margaret Atwood, act like Natalie Portman. But what MasterClass really delivers is something altoguether different.

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
September 2020